University of Maine researchers will train future behavioral health workers specialized in serving rural areas in the state with a new program funded by a four-year, $1.48 million grant by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

The Rural Integrated Behavioral Health in Primary Care (RIBHPC) training program seeks to address the shortage of workers in mental health, addiction treatment, social work and other behavioral health fields in rural Maine. Ten out of 16 Maine counties, seven of which are nonmetropolitan, have areas with insufficient mental health care coverage, according to the Rural Health Information Hub (RHIhub). UMaine researchers say only about half of Maine adults and children who need mental health services receive them. 

Sandra Butler, director of the School of Social Work, will lead the development and implementation of the RIBHPC program alongside Emily Haigh, director of clinical training for the clinical psychology doctoral program at UMaine. According to them, the program will “emphasize the behavioral health care needs of children, adolescents and transition-aged youth in primary care settings,” many of whom face financial and geographic barriers to the services they need.  

The program will support 20 social work students and one to two clinical psychology students each year starting in fall 2021. Butler and Haigh plan to recruit 87 students, seven from clinical psychology and 80 from social work, throughout the four-year project. To incentivize prospective participants, the program will offer $10,000 annual stipends to social work students and $25,000 annual stipends to clinical physiology students over four years.  

“In Maine, we have particularly high rates of mental health and substance use disorders, but are challenged, especially in rural areas, to find enough trained mental health professionals to meet the profound need” says Butler, also the master’s of social work coordinator for UMaine. “This program aims to fill that need through helping clinical psychology and social work students gain the knowledge and professional skills necessary to become members of integrated behavioral health care teams in rural primary care settings.”    

Participants in the RIBHPC program will receive on-site and remote training from health care providers that serve high-need areas across the state to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to serve in rural primary care settings. Providers serving as experiential learning sites will be located across rural regions of the state, particularly in the northern and eastern counties.

By having clinical psychology and social work students collaborate, the program also will prepare them to work in integrated health care, in which professionals of varying disciplines work together to provide patients with both general and mental health treatment. 

Training will include a new course, Advanced Seminar in Integrated Behavioral Healthcare, among other lectures. Students also will participate in eight professional development seminars in mental health screening and assessment in primary care, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, models of trauma-informed primary care and other topics over the four-year training period, or two per year, researchers say. The seminars will be available to faculty, staff and clinical supervisors affiliated with the program as well. 

Students will receive a Certificate in Rural Integrated Behavioral Health upon completing the program.  

“Students will benefit from the interdisciplinary nature of the program, which models one aspect of integrated behavioral health,” Butler says. “They will participate as a cohort in a year-long graduate seminar, participate in teams at some training sites, attend colloquia with nationally known experts in the field, and receive financial support.” 

In addition to helping bolster the behavioral health workforce in rural Maine, the RIBHPC program aims to assist participating health care providers in other ways.

By participating in the RIBHPC program, rural health care providers that lack clinical psychology services will be able to provide them to patients through the Ph.D. students who train with them. University of Maine Cooperative Extension has volunteered to help providers who lack sufficient broadband internet access obtain remote connections, allowing them to offer telehealth services and help students remotely train, researchers say. Researchers say remote training can help “decrease the burden on rural sites to provide on-site supervision,” as well as students’ costs and commutes.

Butler and Haigh have already recruited enough health care providers to create about a dozen experiential learning sites, but hope to attract more to establish a total of 33 sites across the state. 

“Clinical psychologists are particularly scarce in rural areas of Maine,” says Haigh, an associate professor of psychology. “Training sites participating in this program will benefit from the services of the psychology doctoral students, who will be able to conduct comprehensive assessments and evidence-based treatment, both in person and through telehealth.”  

Contact: Marcus Wolf, 207.581.3721; [email protected]